Why Women May Reap More Health Benefits from Exercise than Men

Shannon Miller

April 17, 2024

The common phrase “exercise is medicine” has been coined to underscore the importance of physical activity as a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. While it’s universally acknowledged that everyone can benefit from exercise, emerging research suggests that women may experience distinct advantages when it comes to certain health outcomes. In fact, it has been recently found that women biologically may actually see more pronounced health benefits doing the same amount of exercise when compared to their male counterparts. Taking a deeper look at the interaction between exercise and women’s physiology can help reveal possible reasons why this could be the case.

Amplified health benefits for women

A recent study in the American Journal of the College of Cardiology indicates that women may benefit more than men from the same amount of exercise, whether it be light or moderate cardiovascular training or strength training. For instance, the study found that women could do half the amount of moderate cardiovascular activities (like briskly walking) as men each week and reap the same health benefits. There was a similar finding with vigorous exercise: women who spent 57 minutes exercising at a higher intensity lowered their risk of premature death the same as men who spent 110 minutes exercising. Even further, women who regularly strength trained lowered their risk of premature death by 19%, while men who performed the same amount of strength training regularly only lowered their risk by 11%.

Research also suggests that women may derive specific health advantages from regular exercise that surpass those experienced by men. These include cardiovascular health, bone health and mental well-being.

Cardiovascular Health

While cardiovascular disease affects both sexes, women often face unique risk factors and challenges. Regular exercise has been shown to have a more substantial impact on reducing cardiovascular risk factors in women, including improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and vascular function. Also, the protective effects of exercise against heart disease appear to be more pronounced in women.

Bone Health

Osteoporosis, characterized by decreased bone density and increased fracture risk, disproportionately affects women, particularly postmenopausal women. Weight-bearing and resistance exercises play a crucial role in maintaining bone health by stimulating bone growth and preserving bone mineral density. Research suggests that women may experience greater gains in bone density and strength in response to exercise compared to men.

Mental Well-being

Women are more likely to experience mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which can significantly impact quality of life. Exercise has long been touted for its positive effects on mental health, including mood enhancement, stress reduction, and anxiety management. Studies indicate that women may derive greater psychological benefits from exercise, with improvements in mood, self-esteem, and overall psychological well-being.

Why do women benefit more from exercise than men?

While it’s unclear exactly why, there are several theories that may help to explain the differential effects that exercise has on men and women’s health. Most notably are the physiological differences between the sexes, including variances in body composition, hormonal profiles, and metabolic processes.

Body Composition

Women generally possess a higher proportion of body fat compared to men, which can influence how they respond to exercise. While generally men tend to have greater muscle mass, women often have higher percentage of fat mass. As a result, engaging in regular physical activity may have a more significant impact on body composition for women.

Hormonal Influences

Hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle can also influence women’s responses to exercise. Research indicates that hormonal shifts, particularly during the follicular phase, may enhance the efficiency of a woman’s body, helping build muscle and improve performance. The release of endorphins during exercise may also have a more pronounced effect on mood regulation and stress reduction in women, contributing to overall well-being.

Metabolic Variances

Variations in metabolic rate and fuel sources may contribute to the differing exercise responses between men and women. Women typically rely more on fat as a fuel source during exercise, particularly at lower intensities, which can lead to greater fat oxidation and improved insulin sensitivity over time. This metabolic advantage may mean more long-term benefits in terms of weight management and metabolic health for women.

While exercise offers endless health benefits for both men and women, emerging evidence suggests that women may stand to gain even more from regular physical activity. By recognizing and addressing the unique physiological, hormonal, and metabolic factors that influence women’s responses to exercise, health and fitness professionals can use a more tailored approach to clients who biologically identify as women and guide them towards optimal results. But make no mistake: exercise is good for everyone! These findings should spur motivation among all groups to exercise the right amount for their goals – but it could help take the stress off of women to overdo it, knowing for them, a little bit actually may go a long way.

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